8. Young Jeezy
Albums Released Between 2000-2009: Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 (2005), The Inspiration (2006), The Recession (2008)
Classic Mixtape: Trap or Die (2005)
Group Albums: U.S.D.A's Cold Summer (2007)
Biggest Billboard Hits Between 2000-2009: "Soul Survivor f/ Akon," "Put On f/ Kanye West," "I Luv It," "Go Getta' f/ R. Kelly, "And Then What" f/ Mannie Fresh
Young Jeezy was never considered one of hip-hop's more lyrical rappers. He was an artist who found his strength in epic, powerful, all-encompassing energy, a raw charisma that seethed through brittle, synth-made trap-house beats, powered by the frequency-filling grit of his own voice. That grizzled vocal style, projected to the foreground with a sustained exuberance, seemed like something he was almost unconscious of. He rode a wave of BMF cash and undeniable antihero magnetism to a dominant position in hip-hop, ignoring traditional rules and marking the moment when Atlanta's street rap scene re-emerged as a universe unto itself, but on a larger stage than ever before.
The ruling subject matter and focus was the streets, cocaine distribution, specifically. And like Dr. Dre and Snoop a decade earlier, his purpose was simple. He wasn't interested in complexity, intricacy, or nuance. His purpose was regime change, a grass-roots-up coup de etat, and that meant finding the shortest possible path possible between himself and the greater rap populace. This was the sound that could crown a new king. Unlike Dre, though, he stuck with an underground, street-ready pop-chart-unfriendly sonic blueprint. Shrill, pointillist production (courtesy, primarily, of Shawty Redd) was brought to the surface for outsiders for the first time, shifting Lil Jon's mainstream-friendly production style into a confrontational, metallic timbre, reducing the crunk club sound to shards of desiccated abrasion.
Once, someone perfectly articulated to this writer the difference between Jeezy and Rick Ross by saying that Jeezy made them want to earn money, while Rick Ross encouraged them to spend it. Where Ross saw the fruits of his labor, Jeezy's focus was on the coke itself, looming throughout his lyrics like snowcapped mountains, epitomizing the single-minded, totalitarian focus of his vision.
And at the top of this bubbling populist energy was a new regal persona who stripped gangster rap to certain core, essential elements: the underlying pathos for started-from-the-bottom success stories, the invulnerable hood superhero persona, the hustler's ethos and its rewards. Jeezy's unrelenting focus was the hustle. "Motivation," he called his music. Eschewing the title of "rapper" for "trapper," he created "whistle-while-you-work" anthems for drug-dealers.
But he wasn't a blue collar pusher. He carried the regal poise of the man at the top of the pyramid. His was the soundtrack, after all, to the Big Meech era. Once, someone perfectly articulated to this writer the difference between Jeezy and Rick Ross by saying that Jeezy made them want to earn money, while Rick Ross encouraged them to spend it. Where Ross saw the fruits of his labor, Jeezy's focus was on the coke itself, looming throughout his lyrics like snowcapped mountains, epitomizing the single-minded, totalitarian focus of his vision.
Jeezy's art was that of empowering energies, mantra-like lyrics, and images that evoked an all-conquering largesse. Floors covered in roaches transformed to marble when he turned the lights off and then on. Uniforms were introduced; you couldn't walk a mile in his Air Forces (which everyone wore) and his simple mean-mugging snowman t-shirts flooded schools and hoods and suburbs alike. Remorse, anguish, guilt, any kind of empathy with the victims of his world are absent, because it would undercut the psychological gamesmanship.
Young Jeezy might not make this list, though, if it weren't for his third album, 2008's The Recession, which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the rapper was more than just the sound he came in the door with. A refined elaboration of his debut, his third offering had an even more unified vision, and began to home in on exactly what made him one of hip-hop's foremost craftsmen. While some of the rawness of his debut was sanded down, the unforgiving purposefulness and urgency of his debut remained in place, and the shock-of-the-new brought by his earliest work (seminal mixtapes like Trap or Die) had been replaced by greater consistency and tighter focus. The sound of hip-hop continued to evolve, and other artists, like T.I., had brought a flawed, multi-dimensional human element to Jeezy's inspirational purity. But from "Lose My Mind" to his recent "R.I.P.," Jeezy has proven that his vocals still project an aesthetic that transcends era or nuance. — David Drake